Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Taunton, Somerset

Georgian Art Deco

Here is something I have little to say about – with the exception of single a observation. This Post Office in Taunton was built in 1911 in the neo-Georgian style (red brick with stone dressings on the upper floors, stone on the ground floor) then popular for Post Offices. I have noticed before how this style was popular in the early-20th century, and seemed to work well.

But look at the letterforms used on the identifying 'Post Office' sign above the door. Cut carefully into the stone, the letters look nothing if not Art Deco – those elongated letters popular on shop fronts in the 1920s. I am thinking of the Fs and Es with cross bars near the top of the letter, the enlarged bowl of the P, the slightly forward-sloping S. Is the lettering later than the rest of the building, or unusually forward-looking? I really don't know, but I like the way the two things work together – and how they made me pause and ponder as I walked along the street.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Stoke Newington, London

Grave matters

I was reminded today of the importance – historical, architectural, and religious – of London’s great 19th-century cemeteries. The reminder came in the form of an article in the Evening Standard* that was reporting a call from Historic England§ to support London’s seven historic 19th-century cemeteries, which are in constant need of help because the upkeep of these fragile places is increasingly labour- and money-intensive as vegetation spreads and stones decay and fall. Naturally, the media now calls these cemeteries (Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, West Norwood, Abney Park, Tower Hamlets, and Nunhead) ‘the magnificent seven’, a description that may be modishly allusive to popular culture but is also apt.†

My own favourite was always Nunhead, in part because I once lived near it and got to know it. But now, thanks to my son who’s currently living in Stoke Newington, I’ve become an admirer of Abney Park too. Founded in 1840, Abney Park was special in several ways. It was designed by William Hosking, a professor architecture and engineering, who laid it out with generous planting of trees and shrubs, and a vast number of roses. Unlike most London cemeteries, it was not consecrated and was not rigidly Anglican. So dissenters could be buried here, and were, in large numbers; they valued the opportunity to have a grave here all the more because what had been the usual nonconformist cemetery, Bunhill Fields, was filling up by this time. Among the prominent graves of nonconformists is that of William Booth and his wife Catherine, founders of the Salvation Army. Abney Park was also home to the deceased of poorer families. It did not charge the burial fees you had to pay in the Anglican cemeteries, so it answered another pressing need among a large part of the capital’s population.
Nowadays, Abney Park cemetery is not at all its former self. It’s very overgrown, and the Gothic chapel, shown in my upper photograph, is the worse for wear.¶ And yet… Regular readers will guess that I’m not totally out of sympathy with the dilapidation and the advancing greenery. I know that overgrown weeds need to be cleared if they’re not totally to overwhelm and destroy the memorials and pathways. However, I can still see beauty in this overgrown place, where one gets glimpses of worn stone angels through thickets of foliage, and where shafts of sunlight find their way through the trees. The place is still an oasis in this part of London, still the green world away from the noise and traffic that it was always intended to be.

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* The Evening Standard article is here.

§ There is a good short piece on historic cemeteries from Historic England here.

† There are good accounts of London cemeteries in Catharine Arnold, Necropolis: London and its Dead (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

¶ As a reader has pointed out, my use of the term Gothic here is rather far from the whole story. The building displays a spire, pinnacles, and a pointed ogee arch that are certainly Gothic inspiration, but some of this is certainly more like Georgian Gothick than the authentic recreation of medieval Gothic that Victorian architects such as Pugin advocated. The chunky turrets on either side of the entrance, square at the bottom and octagonal higher up, with their round-arched openings at ground level, are different again: they remind me a bit of Vanbrugh’s architecture (as if the architect had been admiring the mock-castle Vanbrugh built for himself in Greenwich). I should have mentioned, too, that if the rose window looks odd, it’s because the tracery that would have filled the opening is missing. I do not know the story of how the building came to be designed this way, but am resolved to find out more when the current heap of work is reduced somewhat in volume.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town (3)

Seasoned visitors to this blog will know about my liking for three-dimensional inn signs and for swans. These two interests have collided at several places (including Wells and Leighton Buzzard†). Here they are again in Harrogate, in the form of this beautiful 3D sign, nicely posed and modelled. I don’t know how old the sign is: it stands on a post well distanced from the facade and most ‘vintage’ images of the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate zoom in close and miss out the sign completely.

The inn itself goes back at least to 1777, but much of the current building probably dates from a remodelling during Harrogate’s boom years in the late-19th century. This was when the hotel was upgraded as the Harrogate Hydro and fitted with Turkish baths and other luxuries. Today, as the Old Swan, it looks very spruce and more welcoming than the rearing swan on its sign which, feathers up and bill at the ready, still pleases the swan-loving bystander.

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† This avian combination makes me wish that the village of Hanley Swan in Worcestershire had a Buzzard Inn; alas it does not.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town (2)

Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, in my previous post, straddles the mid- and late-19th centuries in style, with the restrained classicism of the first period topped and tailed by the more elaborate architecture of the end of the century. The Majestic is from the very turn of the century, and isn’t just grand, but very grand. It’s huge, but the design avoids the impression of any sort of tedious uniformity because the architect, G. D. Martin, packed the facade with architectural incident – bays, balconies, fancy gables, and a great central dome.

Whether you’re in a suite with a balcony, the building seems to say, or in a smaller room up in the mansard roof, you’ll be aware that you’re sharing the experience of staying in a landmark building that makes its mark on the skyline. Placed solidly on a rise behind an expanse of greensward and beside trees and shrubs, it must make you feel that when you arrive here, you’ve really arrived.*

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* A short post, this, as some may well be for the next month or so, as I wrestle with work commitments, deadlines, and the gloom of cloudy wintry days and lengthening nights. But the photograph is enough: just look at this pile – it’s almost as wide-angle-lens-defying a monster as the vast civic buildings of Leeds.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Hotel town

Harrogate is well supplied with large hotels, many dating to the town’s boom in the late-19th century – or even before, the spa being well established by the early-18th. One witness to the town’s earlier life as a watering places was the traveller redoubtable Celia Fiennes, who visited in 1697 and recorded that she could not force her horse to come near the ’Sulpher or Stincking Spaw, not improperly term’d’.* She tried a couple of quarts of the noxious water and found these doses to be ‘a good sort of Purge if you can hold your breath so as to drink them down’. The hotels are variously classical, Italianate, or a sort of free style with many bays, prominent gables, and mansard roofs. My photograph shows the Crown, which is in a mixture of styles, and has a long history.

Before the current building was put up, there had been a hotel here for a long time, even before the Crown was owned by the Thackwray family form 1740. Lord Byron, who stayed in 1806, was one of the best known guests, and he recorded that his beloved dog Nelson§ had to be put down after attacking a horse in the hotel’s stable yard. The Crown was very convenient for the town’s sulphur well, which only a few yards away and available to all. Joseph Thackwray, however, sunk his own private well in a building adjoining the Crown, greatly reducing the flow from the public well. There was an outcry from other innkeepers, and when a group took legal measures against him, he relented. It is said that this case actually alerted the town to the value both of its wells and of its pleasant environment generally, and so preserved the generous public green spaces that distinguish the place to this day.

In 1847 the Crown was rebuilt in the classical style, and this building remains the core of what’s there now – the 3-bay central section (pilastered, with rectangular windows), flanked by slender 1-bay side wings. This was extended in the Italianate style (bay windows, with round-topped central openings) in 1870, when the two parts were unified by building the balustered parapet across the top of the whole front. almost concealing the low hipped roof behind. There were yet further elaborations, including extensions to the sides in around 1899, including the tower visible on the right. The result is an impressive ensemble, near the centre of the town and not far from the greenery of The Stray. In short, an excellent venue for the festival† I attended two weeks ago and no doubt a fine centre for visitors who’ve been coming for hundreds of years.

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* Christopheer Morris (ed.), The Journeys of Celia Fiennes (The Cresset Press, 1947)

§ A mastiff, apparently, not the poet’s most famous dog, the Newfoundland Boatswain.

† The Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Yorkshire philanthropy, Yorkshire grit

Last week I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Harrogate, speaking at the excellent Raworth’s Harrogate Literature Festival and spending a lot of time just standing and staring at the architecture. As someone who grew up Cheltenham and has a particular affection for Bath, both spa towns, I’ve always liked the spa town of Harrogate too – though I’ve not been there for years. I was struck by the stone: Harrogate is a stone town, like Bath (and unlike Cheltenham, where the buildings are predominantly stucco). But whereas Bath’s local stone is creamy limestone, the builders of Harrogate used mainly sandstone from the surrounding area, the various millstone grits with picturesque names (Follifoot Grit, Addlethorpe Grit, Upper and Lower Plompton Grit, and Libishaw Sandstone) that give the place its characteristic look. These stones vary in colour from grey to brown, and many look darker than the southern limestones typical of places like Bath. They’re also often finished less smoothly – sometimes rock-faced, sometimes with a flat face but with the chisel’s tool marks left very much visible.

The other thing that marks Harrogate out from those other two great spas is its date. In contrast to Georgian Bath and Regency Cheltenham, Harrogate came into fashion in the second half of the 19th century, so much of its architecture is Victorian. This building, for example, is of dark stone in a mix of masonry finishes – mainly rock-faced stone for the walls, with smooth ashlar around the windows and doors. The trefoiled upper windows and the clock tower with its short spire take their cue from the Gothic style, as is not unusual for for almshouses of the Victorian period. They were built in 1868 by textile manufacture George Rogers, whose business was in Bradford but who had a close connection to Harrogate and intended as houses for elderly people from either place.
Rogers's emblem of hard work, the bee and its hive, is placed above the central doorway. Bees must be in evidence, too, in the courtyard’s lovely garden, which was still showing a little colour in the late-October warmth. That garden, together with the architectural flourish of the spire, suggest that a decent environment was (and is) being valued here, not just a necessary minimum. Victorian values weren’t all bad.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire

Down in the chalk country

In a lot of southern England the rock that underlies the fields, villages, and towns is chalk: there’s a lot of chalk underfoot in Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, and Surrey. You can build with chalk, but it’s a soft rock and not an ideal building material, but along with the chalk goes flint, which is found in the upper layers of the chalk and is used in many places for building. Flint, on the face of it, isn’t an ideal building material either. It occurs in rounded nodules, and to build a wall out of these small lumps of flint, you usually need a lot of mortar. When napped or split into workable pieces with a flat side to form the face of the wall it often looks black or grey, and this can be overwhelming in large stretches.

So for visual reasons and for structural ones (lots of mortar can make a weak wall) the builders of the chalk areas have devised lots of ways of combining flint with other materials – bands or strips or blocks of other more workable stone, or courses of bricks. This kind of combination of flint and brick, which I was looking at in Wiltshire and Hampshire the other week, can be particularly attractive.

These houses are in Hurstbourne Tarrant, where there are several such buildings. Brick is often used at the corners, and around windows and doors, as can be seen clearly in the left-hand house. In the thatched house to the right, the combination is more of a mash-up, probably because the building has been altered or rebuilt at some point (or at several points). One often sees houses that combine these flint and brick walls with walls of other materials – a side wall that’s all brick, for example, or, nearly as often, a front wall of brick and a side wall of both flint and brick. The resulting patterns are usually pleasing from whichever angle you view the building, with ingenuity and visual flair working well together: in places with this kind of architecture there’s never a visually dull moment.